If Lebanon has been slowly, agonizingly strangled by 13 years of intermittent civil war, as many Lebanese believe, then events of the past month may prove to be the final death rattle of this pathetic, baffling nation.
For the first time since independence in 1943, the country is without a president--not even a relatively powerless leader like Amin Gemayel, whose six-year term of office expired Sept. 23 without a successor having been chosen.
Instead, Lebanese must endure the spectacle of two rival governments--one Christian and headed by the army commander, Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, the other Muslim and led by the minister of education and fine arts, Salim Hoss--demanding recognition as the legitimate power in Lebanon.
Each government accuses the other of being “partitionist,” touching upon the fears of many both here and abroad that the day of Lebanon’s breakup into small mini-states, or cantons, is unavoidably at hand.
“Now you have partition,” a Western diplomat said. “There’s no exit.”
Unlike past crises in Lebanon, the current stalemate has not been accompanied, as yet, by the usual artillery bombardments, car bombs and other acts of mayhem that have been adopted as a means for exerting political pressure.
The Lebanese pound, a well-known barometer of trouble, whose value plummeted from 5 to the dollar in 1984 to more than 600 earlier this year, appeared to be barely affected by the latest trouble. After falling from 400 to 420, it settled at 410 to the dollar almost immediately.
More significantly, parts of Lebanon, notably the Christian heartland around East Beirut, are experiencing an economic boom based on rapidly expanding manufactured exports. New buildings are rising in virtually every unused corner of land, stores are filled with the latest goods from Europe--prices posted in dollars or French francs--and flashy nightclubs with names like Wall Street are once again filled with the Lebanese equivalent of cafe society.
Recent statistics reflect a newly found affluence. Lebanese have more than $2 billion on deposit in banks inside the country--more than 90% of it in foreign currency--and another $8 billion abroad. The Central Bank, which only two years ago was on the verge of bankruptcy, now has a cash hoard of more than $1 billion in reserves.
“Ah, Lebanon,” commented Rudy Paulekevitch, the wisecracking spokesman for Lebanon’s tiny National Liberal Party. “Always the surrealistic Lebanon.”
Problem Taken Seriously
Although the current political crisis was foreseen years ago, it was only as Gemayel’s term as president came to an end that anyone began to take the problem seriously.
Based on a so-called “national covenant” from the 1940s, Lebanon’s government system is a Byzantine horror that makes America’s former selection of leaders in smoke-filled rooms seem comparatively open.
Under the creaky system that existed until last month, the elected president must be a Maronite Catholic, the majority sect in the 1940s but today a minority because of emigration and a low birthrate. The other major sects are represented by a Sunni Muslim premier and a Shia Muslim Speaker of Parliament, a distribution of posts by religious quota that is echoed down through the entire government.
The president is elected by Parliament, a body that is supposed to have 99 members but which, since the last election was held in 1972, has been eroded by deaths to 76 aging members.
And now that divided forum, at loggerheads for 13 years, has been unable to agree on a suitable candidate to succeed Gemayel. When it first tried to do so Aug. 18, the Christian members boycotted the vote to keep Suleiman Franjieh, a former president and acknowledged friend of Syria, from winning.
Troops’ Virtual Veto
It soon became clear that Syria, whose 40,000 troops in Lebanon give it a virtual veto over political activity in the Muslim sector, would cast the deciding vote.
Lebanon’s two communities appealed to the United States to intervene in the deadlock. Despite a long and sad history of failure in Lebanon, Washington astonishingly agreed to try and sent Richard W. Murphy, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, to Damascus to try to build a consensus.
After marathon negotiating sessions with the Syrians, Murphy emerged with the “compromise candidate"--Mikhail Daher, a 60-year-old member of Parliament from the northern Akkar district.
But the Christians were appalled at the choice, accusing Daher of having signed Lebanese sovereignty over to Syria, and immediately rejected his candidacy. The deadline for choosing a new president passed without a compromise.
Gemayel seized on the fact that the late Premier Rashid Karami had submitted his resignation in May, 1986, weeks before he was killed in a helicopter accident. The successor government led by Hoss was only a temporary replacement, so Gemayel named Aoun, also a Maronite Christian, as the new premier.
Rejection by Lebanese Forces
Ironically, Aoun himself had been an early candidate for the presidency but was rejected by the principal Christian militia organization, known as the Lebanese Forces.
With the current deadlock, Aoun seems likely to govern for a considerable time despite his “interim” status.
“It’s a stalemate for election to the presidency,” said Dany Chamoun, a Christian leader and himself a presidential candidate. “Lebanon will continue to survive, but it’s a step nearer partition.”
Much would appear to depend on the course of action chosen by Syria, which could turn out to be a military option or that of putting political pressure on Aoun, whom it does not recognize as premier.
“Any Lebanese national who believes that the Syrian presence in Lebanon is a foreign presence, harms Lebanon in the first place and does not want to see a unified, sovereign and independent Lebanon,” Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh said last month. “We believe that those who hampered the constitutional process to elect a new president bear the responsibility for dismembering Lebanon and placing it on a dangerous path.”
U.S. Blamed for Deadlock
As seems almost usual, the United States, which the Lebanese begged to join the deliberations, is now blamed by many in the Christian community for the resulting deadlock.
“One day you classify Syria as a terrorist nation, and the next the U.S. Administration joins forces with it, hand in hand,” Chamoun now says bitterly.
The Maronite patriarch, a powerful cleric named Nasrallah Sfeir, asserted publicly that the Ottoman Empire had been kinder to Lebanon than the Reagan Administration.
A new U.S. ambassador, John T. McCarthy, arrived in the aftermath of the crisis and garnered front-page headlines when he was quoted as apologizing for “some mistakes” by his government. (One of the many quirks of the current situation is that with Lebanon lacking a legal president, McCarthy has no one to whom he can present his credentials.)
In truth, the lack of a serving president in Lebanon is not as much of a crisis as it would be, for example, if Americans woke up in January and found they had no leader. As the civil war here has progressed since 1975, the Lebanon’s central government has performed fewer and fewer functions.
Little Difference Seen
“What’s the difference between one legitimate government and one so-called government, and one elected president and the Muslims boycotting the government, as happened for the past two years?” asked one Christian politician.
Despite their differences, neither side has yet forced a confrontation. The Central Bank, which is in Muslim West Beirut, is still paying government salaries to all civil servants. Critical supplies of electricity, gasoline and flour still flow from the Christian East to the Muslim West.
“Both sides know it’s a case of (threatened) mutual suicide; one side acts and the other retaliates,” said one diplomat. “Of course, one should never underestimate the Lebanese capacity for shooting themselves in the foot.”
Many believe the point of no return would be reached if the Muslim government ordered the army back to its barracks, precipitating a crisis for Aoun, or if Aoun began replacing the Muslim Cabinet ministers in the government. A key test will come next Tuesday, when the Shia Muslim Speaker of Parliament, Hussein Husseini, is due to be replaced.
Meanwhile, the militias of Lebanon are replacing the government in significant ways, giving the impression, if not the fact, of partition on the ground.
9,000-Man Civil Service
In Christian East Beirut, for example, the Lebanese Forces have established a 9,000-man civil service that collects four different taxes and provides services ranging from garbage collection to welfare.
“We want reform of the state, not partition,” said Roger Dib, head of internal affairs for the Lebanese Forces. “We are trying to build an infrastructure.”
After years of “temporary service,” the Lebanese Forces have erected an efficient and imposing passenger terminal for the ferry boats that carry Christian passengers from the port of Juniyah to Cyprus. Originally designed to provide safe passage to Christians afraid to travel to the airport in West Beirut, the ferry now has the feel of a cantonal transportation service. A Lebanese Forces passport inspector even checks documents before the Lebanese government officials do so.
At 15 minutes to midnight on Sept. 13, Gemayel read a rhapsodic farewell to the nation. “O Lebanese,” he said, “I leave the presidency with worry and tribulation in my heart.”
But Gemayel took his leave with customary gusto, declaring until the end: “Long live Lebanon.”